The members of Seven)Suns share how to transcribe hardcore metal to string quartet, as well as how to preserve their stamina and physical condition while playing works from their upcoming album

Seven)Suns 4760 by John DeVore

Seven)Suns © John DeVore

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Comprising violinists Earl Maneein and Adda Kridler, violist Fung Chern Hwei and cellist Jennifer DeVore, Seven)Suns is a string quartet that applies classical training to the music of metal and hardcore. Ahead of its 29 September release of the note-for-note reinterpretation of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s entire 2013 One of Us Is the Killer album, the members of Seven)Suns spoke with The Strad about its influences, recreating metal sounds and techniques for stringed instruments, as well as the musical and physical challenges of playing such relentless works.

Earl, can you tell us your personal history with metal? Can you outline who The Dillinger Escape Plan are for those who are unfamiliar? 

Earl: I grew up in Bellerose, Queens, which was (and still is) a working-class neighborhood. All my friends around the block were metalheads and hardcore kids. I lied to my parents about what I was doing and went to my first underground show at some point in ninth grade where the local legendary hardcore band No Redeeming Social Value were playing, and the pit was insane. I had never felt such cathartic raw energy before. For me, this music was the perfect voice for all the rage, frustration, boredom and nihilism that I think, comes with the territory of being a thirteen-year-old boy kicking around American suburbia.

From then on, I lived sort of a double life, musically. I’d go to these shows, play in bands (but on guitar, not violin), participate very intensely in this subculture, and then show up at my violin lessons and New York Youth Symphony rehearsals. After I graduated from college, I decided to start my own metallic hardcore band, Resolution15, which combined all the ideas I had kept separate during my formative years. I played a custom seven-string electric violin (from lowest to highest Bb-F-C-G-D-A-E) that replaced the role of the guitar in the band and taught myself to play rhythmically in service of the songs we were writing. After the dissolution of that band, I went on to form SEVEN)SUNS, which I see as a mirror image of Resolution15. If Resolution15 brought a violin into the world of metal and hardcore, SEVEN)SUNS brings the ethos and attitude of hardcore and metal into the string quartet. 

I discovered The Dillinger Escape Plan while participating in a Baroque music festival in Princeton University in 2003. I was hanging at the Princeton Record Exchange before a concert, and I saw their album Miss Machine in the used bin. I took a chance and bought it. It was maybe the best $4.99 I ever spent. I was totally blown away. In my opinion, this band captured violence, panic and anxiety in a way that no other band has been able to, before or since, though many try. All my buddies were talking about them already and how insane, reckless, anarchic and chaotic their live shows were.

What are some of your favourite techniques used in the album that you implemented to replicate the sounds of the original versions? Can you tell us about some parallels between string techniques and elements such as distortion, strumming, polyrhythms and drumming? 

Adda: One favourite technique in these arrangements that I play features high octave single hits to stand in for the high-hat, especially on backbeats. Another one that I think is very effective is the use of double stops and the natural resonance of string instruments to build up sound in place of amplification. 

Earl: I love the sul ponticello with overpressure. There’s a ton of that on the album and that gets translated as distortion, and sometimes screaming, depending on the context. There’s occasional usage of Bartok pizzicatos for snare hits, and super aggressive, hyper-rhythmic, consistent brush strokes in the lower half of the bow for what is known in metal as ‘chugs’- defined in the metal genre as low range palm muted strokes originally on a guitar. That technique is possibly the only one that markedly differs from established violin technique. I now know how to do that in a relatively relaxed manner, but I gave myself carpal tunnel in both wrists doing that in the early days since I was the one experimenting with this technique and there was no one to show me how to do it. 

Chern Hwei: My favourite technique used in this music is ’crunch-grind’. The term is very self-explanatory - crunching and grinding your bow hair very hard against the string to create the distortion effect, which we can achieve without buying an extra piece of gear. It’s the same for ’bowed feedback’ and a few other percussive effects. They’re all built into our instruments, and it’s just a matter of finding ways to produce those sounds. I incorporated a form of strumming technique in my arrangement of the title track, One of Us is the Killer. It’s a technique called ’strum bowing’. When two players are bow-strumming different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, you can get really cool polyrhythms happening, and that effect is present in that song.

Seven)Suns 4656 by John DeVore

Seven)Suns © John DeVore

Tell us about some of the challenges of arranging the works for string quartet. 

Jenny: While I did not arrange the music, I advised Earl (full disclosure, he is my husband) on how to notate certain rhythms. What became clear during the process is how differently each member of the group processes rhythms. When we would try to breathe together to tighten up certain passages, we realised that Earl was playing by ear because he knew the album internally already, Chern Hwei was thinking in shorter rhythm cells and patterns, and Adda and I were subdividing the rhythms that were on the page. After rehearsals, I would come home and see that Earl would sometimes change the barring or the meters of a tune based on comments and criticisms from one member or another. 

Chern Hwei: The biggest challenge, on top of transcribing the hyper complex rhythmic content of the source material, is the orchestration. A band consists of guitars, bass, drums and a vocalist. A string quartet is just four instruments of the same family, with only three different ranges. This meant that Earl and I had to ‘translate’ the music into a string quartet context - while retaining the same violent energy and the same relentless rhythmic drive present in the original.

With those requirements, it’s essential to think about which instrument we assign certain parts to. It’s not like a rock band, where the drummer’s job is to dictate the time, and the guitar and bass follow the drummer’s time. Writing for string quartet, an ensemble that shares the same timbres, and only differs in ranges, demands a different consideration. Earl and I both decided to cut up drum parts in our arrangements and let different people play them during different times in the piece. We did something similar for the other instruments and split the phrases between players. By writing like that, a ’stereo’ effect is achieved where the first violin passes the vocal line to the second violin while switching roles to play the guitar riff, for example.

The music is pretty relentless - how do you and your colleagues maintain stamina and physicality when performing and recording the works? Do you perform with music or by memory?

Earl: Since I had previous experience playing in hardcore and metal bands, I suspect my learning curve was not as steep as the others. I was already used to living with a certain amount of aggression in my body and mind. I also think that for me, it’s a matter of tapping into remembered rage. I thankfully have much less present rage as an adult compared to when I was a teenager, but the remembering is important to me.

However, as someone with real injuries, I have to pace myself in a similar way that fighters do. I know that I have to go twelve rounds and I can’t just blow everything in the first. I find ways to totally turn off my muscles and relax in micro moments. As far as performing, I used to want the group to end up playing everything by memory. However, when I think about what this group actually is, I realise that we’re still a string quartet at our core and it’s better, given who we are, and what our collective training is, that we continue performing with sheet music so we’re able to consistently perform new pieces with some degree of expediency and time doesn’t get wasted in trying to get off book. 

Adda: This is definitely a big deal, and I make a lot of conscious decisions to maximise the energy that the music requires while not hurting myself. I mark reminders to release in my music and try to take advantage of the high energy to release tension through movement whenever possible. (Thrashing around on stage is very cathartic!) Loud, repetitive rhythms are the hardest, and I often have to build relaxation points into my slow practice of these so that I feel comfortable in the throes of performance. 

Chern Hwei: I hurt my right thumb almost 20 years ago, and ever since then, I can’t play this violent stuff for too long with a standard Western classical bow hold. Then I remembered seeing bluegrass players who tuck their thumbs under their bows, so I started experimenting with that, and it slowly developed into my ’knife grip’. With a ’knife grip’, I can be as violent as I want, and it doesn’t hurt my thumb. With that problem out of the way, stamina is not a problem for me. Being in a studio means we can stop at the end of the section, take a break and regroup, then either retake or continue. 

Jenny: When the group was just starting out, we booked a studio for a half day to record three songs. We learnt very quickly that we couldn’t push ourselves to play with full energy for too long without hurting ourselves. During that session I got a twinge in my bow hand for the first time in my life that I consider a reminder that I need to be careful. Because the viola and cello have lots of loud, repetitive riffs which can be exhausting, Chern Hwei and I often switch to what Chern Hwei calls his ’knife grip’ - if we are tired during a show and have a long passage which is not too complicated and we can get away with it.

We also very consciously schedule talking breaks during our shows after grueling pieces and before ones with delicate openings. Lately we have been making sure that we run the whole set a few days before the show so that we can figure out when to rest or switch the order of the songs to help maintain our stamina.  

Tell us about your instruments that you perform on. 

Adda: I play a violin by Georges Chanot, Paris, 1820. My bow is by Benoît Rolland, Boston, 2005. 

Jenny: I play a ca. 1730 Italian composite with a modern top. My bow was made by Eugene Sartory. 

Chern Hwei: I play an American made viola, maker unknown that I got from a friend for free when he moved out of the States. My bow is a bamboo viola bow made by a British bow maker, Lawrence Cocker. 

Earl: My acoustic violin is a Giovanni Cavani, Spilamberto, 1910. My seven-string electric is made by John Jordan, 2006 with a StringAmp pickup. I play with two different bows, depending on the context. When we require subtlety, the bow I use is attributed to Pfretzschner with a Sartory stamp on it. When I really need to slam things, I use an Arcus S7 carbon fibre bow with fake hair on it because rehairs get expensive.

Seven)Suns x The Dillinger Escape Plan’s One of Us is the Killer will be released on Silent Pendulum Records on 29 September

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